Truth is stranger than fiction—at least, it contains the seeds of something stranger than fiction. As I read Emma Donoghue’s stunning Frog Music, I was enjoying it because it was a well-crafted work of mystery and historical fiction. I had no idea that the story was based on real people and history until I read Donoghue’s notes at the end of the book. Now I have to wonder if Donoghue really didn’t solve a 140 year old murder.
Frog Music opens dramatically. Blanche Beunon, danseuse and prostitute, has just leaned over to remove a stubborn gaiter from her leg when gunfire rings out. She is wounded by flying glass from the broken window, but the bullets killed her companion, Jenny Bonnet. Jenny was an eccentric who lied about nearly every detail of her past and preferred to dress in men’s clothing, even though the San Francisco police would regularly fine or jail her for it.
Just after Jenny’s murder, Donoghue splits her narrative. Blanche is our narrator for both. In one track, we see Blanche has she meets Jenny and what leads up to the murder. In the other, we follow Blanche as she tries to figure out who killed Jenny and rescue her infant son, P’tit Arthur. We learn about Blanche’s lover, Arthure Deneve, and his constant companion, Ernest Girard. We learn that the two men have been funding their vie de bohème with Blanche’s money. We learn that Arthur sent away Blanche’s son because he interfered with her earning money. But Jenny upsets the balance by asking a few simple questions. Jenny’s questions lead Blanche to discover what really happened to P’tit Arthur. He’d been placed in a notorious “baby farm,” The knowledge that her son nearly died of neglect and that it was partly her fault drives Blanche to try to reform herself. This does not go over well with Arthur.
Sex plays a big role in Frog Music, but not in the way you might expect. Jenny and Blanche are not draw together because they are lesbians. Blanche is drawn to Jenny’s freedom. I suspect the Jenny is drawn to Blanche because Blanche reminds her of what she used to be. Rather, sex plays a role because Blanche is frequently berated or exploited because of her sexuality. She likes sex. She likes sex a lot. And in the nineteenth century, there’s really no place for a woman who is known to enjoy sex. You may not look to a novel set in the 1870s to have much to say about contemporary society, but there’s still a lot of censure towards sexual women in our time.
I was enthralled by Frog Music. The characters are so richly drawn, a blend of historical fact and Donoghue’s fictional polish. Even the secondary and tertiary characters shine with life. I had no problem imagining them carrying on after the last chapter. And the setting! Donoghue does marvels in resurrecting the San Francisco of 1876. The city hums with people bustling and hustling. (In the author’s notes, Donoghue writes that many of the places in Frog Music no longer exist, having been destroyed by earthquake, fire, or time.) This book is simply incredible.